Content Marketing World 2016: snapshot of the discipline

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Doug Kessler

08. 09. 2016 | 10 min read

Content Marketing World 2016: snapshot of the discipline

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There have been a few Content Marketing World previews and there will no doubt be lots of show reviews. This is my show midview, written in the wee hours of Thursday 8 September.

I’m writing it partly because I know I won’t have time after the event; partly because I can’t sleep (I’m still on UK time, I got cocky and skipped the Ambien; and the paper-thin walls of the DoubleTree Inn mean I can hear my neighbours breathing on the other side of the wall. Not even snoring, breathing*.)

And a mid-way report is probably just as good as a full review anyway. I’m only one guy. I can only go to so many sessions and have so many chats. So any report is just a randomish sample of what has become a really big event. (Tom Webster, my research-wonk friend wouldn’t let me claim actual randomness: I choose my sessions carefully and from experience).

Content Marketing World as core sample

Just as my report is a quasi-representational slice of the event, Content Marketing World is itself a core sample of the entire discipline. That’s one of the reasons I love it: you can actually see and feel the market progress year-on-year. (Other reasons I love it include the amazing CMI team —  they’re like an orange-clad cult that, instead of practicing free love, practices generosity and full-on, niceness (they may also practice free love, for all I know: they’re always smiling)).

This is my fourth year at the event and every year has reflected a significant, measurable step in the development, industrialization and mainstreaming of content marketing.

My review of CM World 2014 (the year of Kevin Spacey) was all about the market’s ramping up: getting to grips with this new toy and sharing all the new tricks it could perform. I failed to review 2015 (I remembered to take my Ambien – another masterpiece lost to pharmaceuticals) but it would have been about the professionalisation of the discipline: as a group, we were getting really good at this — and had grown up enough to know we had to measure our contribution.

So what’s the Mother Trend of Content Marketing World 2016?

Joe Pulizzi, the industry’s pioneer, midwife, MC and cheerleader-in-chief (they call him the Godfather of Content Marketing but he’s way to nice for that. If he had to kill you, he’d do it by hugging you to death. Or helping you so much you died of gratitude, eyes wide open, a barely detectable stream of bright orange spittle leaking from the corner of your mouth) said in his keynote that the theme of the day is Commitment: that we all need to be all-in on content marketing – or not even do it at all.

This might be a response to what Joe sees as the imminent (and inevitable) backswing of the market pendulum: he knows that some teams will be giving up on content marketing and doing it for all the wrong reasons. So he’s urging the congregation to keep the faith, or even to redouble it. (Last hear he warned about us all sliding into the Trough of Disillusionment which sounds like a horribly lonely trough to slide into).

I’m sure Joe is right (betting on Joe isn’t really betting at all, it’s investing) – but for me, the big news is the full-on maturation of the discipline of content marketing, paired with the specialisation of the practices that make it up.

The maturation of content marketing

There’s no doubt that content marketing has transitioned out of its teen years and is entering full adulthood. This is especially poignant for me, as my youngest daughter, Zoë, won’t be home when I get back to London (she’s going to university in Edinburgh, leaving her mother and me to slide quietly towards death).

Like many marketing movements that have gone before, maturation essentially means the dissolving of the new thing back into the core discipline of marketing. You don’t see many Internet Marketing shows any more.

This is only sad if you’re invested in keeping the new thing as shiny as possible for as long as possible (of if your rotten kids have abandoned you to decades of cat-feeding, dog-poo-bagging and weak-tea-making in order to pursue their own selfish… lives).

The cool thing is that content marketing isn’t disappearing back into the same Mother Discipline of marketing that existed when Joe P and his early Band of Siblings first planted the bright orange flag in the soil of a new… Jesus, this metaphor is exhausting even me. Think Iwo Jima statue but happier.

The Marketing that content marketing is dissolving back into is a marketing that, as a marketer I feel duty-bound to call New and Improved™.  We made it better.

No, I don’t think the term or the practice is disappearing or receding in any way. Far from it. In many ways it’s just beginning. But the new ideas and values that were bundled together in the content marketing model are now being rapidly adopted by the wider marketing world. Putting your audience needs above your promotional agenda? Actually bringing value to the customer conversation? Earning your slice of attention instead of assuming it? That’s just marketing, Bro.

[I promise to never call you Bro again. It just slipped out, and it’s too early for backspacing in the dark.]

So we can celebrate the maturation of content marketing instead of mourning it. Yes, I’ll miss the irrational exuberance of the early years. But I’ll take the measurable effectiveness any day.

It’s time to let content marketing (like Zoë) go off into the world and make its own way.

The specialisation of content marketing

(I’m sticking with British spelling. Google can kiss my ass — no arse.)

As it matures, content marketing is also splintering into a bewildering collection of sub-disciplines. Actually ‘splintering’ isn’t quite right because it implies fragmentation and disintegration: in reality the many sub-disciplines of content marketing are all knitting together into something bigger, better stronger – but a lot more complex.

In his fantastic keynote on day one, Andy Crestodina of Orbit Media, referred to the need to become T-shaped marketers: people who are familiar with the many different skills of content marketing while also being really good at one of them. (He also said you should refer to at least one influencer in every blog post, so this one’s for you, Andy).

To illustrate his point, Andy made a T that listed the tracks of Content Marketing World as the horizontal arm. They were (are):

Content Creation • Demand Generation • Social Media • Content Strategy • Tools & Technology • Sales • Advanced Measurement • Email • Intelligent Content • Native/Interactive • Process & Workflow • Content Distribution • Performance/ROI • Findabiity • Multi-channel • Visual Storytelling • B2B • Conversion • Global Strategy

See what I mean? Each of these is almost its own discipline. And each is becoming its own hotbed of innovation, with specialist practitioners, dedicated vendors and new processes, technologies and jargon. And the CM World tracks are really only buckets with even more specialised skillsets inside each one. Yikes.

It was always hard to keep up with all the developments that content marketing brought together. Now it’s kind of impossible. We all have to keep an eye on the whole thing – and rely on each other to master whichever specialism we choose (the spine of the T), reporting back to HQ with the need-to-know stuff.

To me, the specialisation is kind of exhilarating. It might get a bit blinkered but it accelerates progress wildly. And that’s fun.

Some random highlights

Just to give you a sense of the event:

Andy Crestodina’s keynote – Andy has this weird need for other people to succeed and it’s hugely magnetic. So the whole room became his iron filings, self-orienting towards his smart, clear advice. He outlined a step-by-step process for building relationships that lead to better content and more traffic – and it all made total sense. Slam dunk.

Lars Silberbauer on Lego’s approach to content – When a Danish, family-owned manufacturer of plastic bricks that aren’t even patent-protected any more can become one of the world’s biggest, best-loved brands, something very cool is going on. Lars Silberbauer showed us what it was: laser-focused alignment around two, simple core ideas (Building Together and Pride in Creation); a wonderful sense of play; and a global, never-sleeping monster of a content/social media machine.

I LOVED the Kronkiwongi campaign so much so that I’m rushing home to make one so I can upload the video.

Joe Chernov on the collision of ABM and Content Marketing – No matter who Joe is ‘up against’ in the cruel track schedule, I will pick Joe. (In this case, that meant missing Robert Rose’s big talk, which by all reports was amazing. Frustration at missing people you only get a chance to see once a year is part of the CM World experience. You kind of get used to it.)

Joe is VP of Marketing at InsightSquared a hot company that does business intelligence for sales teams (that anchor text bouquet goes out to Joe, humble as our domain authority is). I’ve followed him (much to his annoyance) from Eloqua to Kinvey to Hubspot and now to InsightSquared and I’m always impressed by how he kind of re-invents or re-defines his job based exclusively on the things that are most likely to make his employer successful.

A lot of senior marketers become one-trick ponies, bringing their schtick wherever they go. Joe goes in quietly, looks around, listens a lot and then comes up with the most practical strategy possible. (I’m reverse engineering all of this from the all-too-few chats I’ve had with Joe, the sessions I’ve attended and the work his teams have put out).

In this case, the right strategy is Account Based Marketing and so – even if it appears to contradict content marketing dogma – that’s what he’s doing.

One example: Joe killed the ‘blog visitor growth’ metric. He doesn’t want the blog to attract more people. He wants it to attract more people from their target accounts. If the overall visitor number stays flat but the percentage of target account visitors goes up, they win.

Tom Webster on the voice of the consumer – Tom’s from Edison Research, the folks who do the exit polling for all the networks (I suggested a new step in their process for this year: if anyone exits the poll and says he or she voted for Donald Trump, send them back in to do it again, only thinking harder this time).

Tom did a smart-funny-insightful riff on the nature of demand that was really, really interesting. He identified four kinds – but I won’t spoil the idea by paraphrasing it here. Wait for the book.

Tom also earned my eternal admiration because the projector died on slide 8 — and he just went on without a blink, finishing his talk from memory and filling in the visuals by way of interpretive dance and funny voices. Great session.

Ann Handley on a look back to the best marketing of… next year – Ann projected the audience into the future and looked back at the content highlights of 2017 (including a shout out to Informatica, for their Marketing Data Lake book – woo-hoo!).

Ann says she hates the 20-minute format but she absolutely killed it, then went back to reverse over it a few times, for fun. She’s infuriatingly-predictably great at public speaking and the real thought leadership that must power any great speaker.

And she’s got this ‘best friend’ vibe thing that makes whole rooms go home and say “Yeah, I hung out with Ann yesterday. Ann Handley? Yeah, we hung out. Yesterday. Me and Ann.” The downside: the woman can’t cross a hotel lobby without doing, like, nineteen selfie requests. I imagine the upside far outweighs that.

Hanging out with fellow content marketing geeks – This is always the highlight of every CM World. Back in the UK, even among marketers, I’m the weird guy who uses words like ‘content’ and ‘nurture flows’ and ‘Kronkiwongi’. In Cleveland, I’m home. These are my people.

So the best times are the little side chats. Not even about content marketing. Maybe about the Jersey Shore (Erika Goldwater, Michael Brenner); or raising kids in Ridgefield, CT (Tim Washer); or skipping the small-talk and zooming right to Level 3 (Ahava Leibtag); or why it sometimes hurts when you pee (name withheld to protect… everyone involved).

Content marketers really are a smart, friendly bunch. I like hanging out with them.

Content Marketing World 2016 Speakers





Our own snarky troll – An anonymous tweeter calling himself Selfie Humblebrag is tweeting sarcastic comments throughout the event. Kind of funny (it’s a nice break from the unrelenting positivity) but also a bit… cowardly. Come on out from behind the mask — it’s okay to have opinions in public.

The set of the keynote stage
– It was the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, or whatever the Star Wars equivalent is, complete with view into hyperspace (or whatever). Bravo to Joe Kalinowski, the CMI creative dude, and team. I didn’t even like Star Trek Wars: Return of the Bombast, but I loved this set.

Joe Pulizzi at CM World 2016

The stuff I missed
– You know what sucks? What sucks is flying 3,000 miles and being forced to share a room (or at least an experience) with a faceless couple in a DoubleTree Inn and NOT getting to hear Marcus Sheridan, Tim Washer, Kristina Halvorson, Jay Acunzo, Ardath Albee, Paul Roetzer Jay Baer, Rand Fishkin, Matt Heinz, Adele Ravella, Pam Didner, Carla Johnson, Michael Brenner, Jonathan Crossfield, Lee Odden and Stan Woods (who, let’s face it, I can see back in our office in London).

Content Marketing World puts the MO in FOMO.

But the stuff you absorb is worth the trip.


*Even wearing earplugs, I know a whole lot more about the couple in Room 18XX than I know about my best friends. I want to slip a note under the door, recommending an unguent for the condition I’m convinced the woman is suffering from. The guy? Insensitive bastard and kind of a heavy breather. But I don’t want to judge.

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  1. Erika Goldwater


    September 8th, 2016

    What can I say after reading this post except I admire and adore you! Erika Goldwater @erikawg

    1. Doug Kessler

      September 12th, 2016

      It’s mutual Erika!

  2. Michael Brenner

    Marketing Insider Group

    September 9th, 2016

    Just had a chance to read this Doug. Great post. Congrats again on Agency of the Year! Always great to see you. I think I was goosing you in the speaker event photo. Or was it Wheatland? You’ll never know.

    1. Doug Kessler

      September 12th, 2016

      Thanks MB — hope to see you soon. Congrats on the awesome launch of The Marketing Insider Group.

  3. Joe Pulizzi


    September 10th, 2016

    When I pass on, will you write my obit?

    1. Doug Kessler

      September 12th, 2016

      When you pass on, I will be but a distant memory…
      (But happy to).

  4. Leslie

    Leslie Lang Communications

    September 14th, 2016

    This was so much fun to read, in addition to being a terrific summation of the Content Marketing World experience.

    “…she’s going to university in Edinburgh, leaving her mother and me to slide quietly towards death.”

    Great post, all of it.

    1. Doug Kessler

      September 14th, 2016

      Thanks Leslie — one of the best events out there, isn’t it?

  5. Jonas

    Resscapital AB

    September 15th, 2016

    Well done Doug and greetings from your friend in Stockholm. Let me know when you want to come over and meet a few of our cool tech companies

    1. Doug Kessler

      September 20th, 2016

      Thanks Jonas! Packing my bags.

  6. Chris Van Gils


    September 18th, 2016

    Great post! ! Each year I happily travel from Belgium to Cleveland for all the above mentioned reasons!
    Where they welcome me as an alien who has travelled to space!
    Chris Van Gis, ContentMoon & content marketing addict

    1. Doug Kessler

      September 20th, 2016

      Thanks Chris! From a fellow alien.

  7. Igor Mateski


    October 19th, 2016

    Good read, and a nice perspective on maturation of the industry instead of dying out.
    The detail on the heavy-breathing dude… I could live without that detail 😛

    1. Doug Kessler

      October 25th, 2016

      Thanks Igor.
      I could have lived without it too!

  8. Alden

    Ekavat UK

    November 23rd, 2016

    Good content marketing strategy drives profitable customer action. People like excellent content that helps them make good decisions. Also Google’s algorithm updates in recent years increasingly reward quality content and penalize less quality content.

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